(On Cable TV, March 2018) The thirties were a decade when Hollywood perfected the grammar and sales pitch of cinema, with Grand Hotel earning a minor place in history for two innovations: on an artistic level, pioneering the use of a 360-degree lobby set that allowed the camera to be pointed in any direction, and commercially for bringing together as many movie stars as the (comparatively large) budget would allow. It netted Grand Hotel a Best Picture Oscar back in 1933, but today the result has visibly aged. While the script still holds some interest by bringing together a bunch of vignettes that sometimes interact, much of the film is shot as a theatre piece, the lobby sequences being an exception that highlight the more traditional nature of the rest of the film. As far as star power is concerned, modern viewers can still enjoy the presences of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford as well as Lionel and John Barrymore—even as reminders of why they were or became superstars. While the Berlin setting of the film may strike some as odd considering Hollywood’s insularity and the whole World War II unpleasantness a few years later, it’s worth noting that at the time, Hollywood was filled with German expats, that Berlin was a world-class city and the best-selling source novel spoke for itself. Also: this was the depression, and a bit of gentle European exoticism couldn’t hurt the movie-watching masses. Grand Hotel will forever live on as a Best Picture winner, and as a representative of the Hollywood machine as it was revving up in the early thirties, it’s a master class in itself.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Despite James Stewart’s considerable charm (and here he has the chance to play as pure a young romantic lead as he ever got), it took me a while to warm up to You Can’t Take it with You. Despite an eccentric cast of characters, it takes a long time for the comedy to truly take off. Fortunately, this happens midway through, as an explosive sequence is followed up by a rather amusing courtroom sequence. That’s when director Frank Capra feels freest to truly unleash the madness of his characters, and what it means for the plot. Less successful is the film’s last act, which focuses on more manners moral lessons (it’s right there in the title), lessening the film’s laugh quotient but ensuring that it would present an easy moral lesson fit for the film to win that year’s Best Picture Oscar. This being said, the film is not a chore to watch even today. James Stewart is always good, of course, while Lionel Barrymore is unusually sympathetic as the patriarch of an oddball family and 15-year-old Ann Miller makes an impression as the family’s dance-crazy daughter. The film’s mid-point highlight is good for a few laughs, and even easy moral lessons can work well in wrapping up a satisfying viewing experience. As a checkmark for best Picture completists, it’s an odd but not a bothersome entry.